Tom Tugendhat is a British Conservative Party politician, military veteran (Iraq and Afghanistan), and chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. He opposed Brexit, yet now opposes a second referendum. Tugendhat’s influence has grown since being elected to Parliament in 2015. Some consider him a future party leader. Tugendhat started as a journalist in Beirut. He studied theology, holds a master’s degree in Islamic studies, and speaks Arabic and French.
TAI Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Gedmin recently sat down with Tugendhat in London to discuss Brexit, Russia, China, and other challenges of the day. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Jeffrey Gedmin: In a recent issue of the Sunday Times, there was a column whose headline used the word fratricide. Within the Tory Party and between Tories and Labour, are people tearing apart or is this just healthy, constructive competition?
Tom Tugendhat: I think there are moments in every republic’s life—and here I count yours and ours, though we’re a republic pretending to be a monarchy—when the questions change so deeply that existing party structures struggle to keep up. The level of accountability has moved, which is why we’re all having a struggle with representative democracy, with personal accountability and personal media, for example.
So, social media is an example of this. For the first time you are your own publisher. You are your own decider on news sources. You are your own decider on community; you’re no longer geographically tied. And the same applies to democratic hurdles because our entire system of government is really based on geography. If you live in a certain area, you’re represented by a certain person, whether it is the Senate or the congress, or indeed in state politics where it divides further.
And so, this ability to self-associate, this ability to reach different communities, has caused us to question quite a lot of the norms that we’ve had. This is where Brexit and Trump challenged the established settlement. And they’re not the same challenge, by the way, they’re different challenges with different implications. I’m not somebody who believes they are two sides of the same coin. But they are both expressions of the fact that established political norms aren’t working because they’re not addressing fundamental questions. That’s what’s challenging our parties, and I would argue yours too.
JG: At a debate I recently attended in London, with about 1,000 people in the audience, the moderator said, “Raise your hand if you feel that you are politically homeless.” And about 80 percent of the hands went up. Does that surprise you?
JG: Is that representative in any way? How do you speak to that?
TT: No, it doesn’t surprise me, but you could do the same in this Parliament and you’d get the same answer. And I say that because political parties are an expression of something that is possible to achieve when you have time and hard when you don’t, and that’s compromise. That’s management of difference. So political parties, and even parliaments, congresses, work when you take people that are empowered to represent you, you send them off, you trap them together, and they come back and say “This is the best compromise I could do for you.”
If, however, the process is conducted at every stage in the full glare of minute publicity, and that publicity is now self-determined and so constantly reinforcing your current views, you find yourself unable to make compromises. And that means that anybody that does make a compromise inherently doesn’t represent “you,” because you’ve gone from being a values-based actor seeking representation across a range of subjects, to becoming a single-issue advocate for a particular cause. That leads to multiple, more temporary alliances to operate in Congress, Parliament and across society. Each cause creates its own alliance.
JG: Let’s turn to the United States. Putting aside President Trump’s Twitter account and theatrics, two years in, what’s going right and what’s going wrong with American foreign policy?
TT: It’s interesting because I don’t see quite such a break in U.S. foreign policy as many of my American friends do. I see it more as a continuum. I think that the attempted withdrawal from the international space—not a full retreat, but pulling back slightly—really started a long time ago. George W. Bush certainly spoke of it, until 9/11 of course, and Barack Obama tried it rather more successfully, and withdrew rather more successfully than his predecessor. So Trump is continuing that trend.
JG: Do you mean withdrawal from Europe, or—
TT: No, no, from the international space, generally.
TT: I wouldn’t use the term. I don’t think it’s isolationism to not seek to be the single preeminent international actor. And in any case, the United States will remain the single preeminent international actor even it withdraws by 50 percent. So scaling down its commitments to 80 percent or 70 percent or 60 percent of what they were still leaves the U.S. as a very international player.
Look at American troop deployments, the very obvious ones like Afghanistan and Syria, which still go on despite the President’s comments. But look also at training teams in the Philippines, huge bases in South Korea and Japan, joint exercises with the Indian Navy. You can go around the world and find place after place where the United States is still very heavily invested. From Djibouti to Darwin, you find U.S. troops based in foreign countries.
So American withdrawal can be overstated, and I’d be cautious about overstating it. And in that sense I think the current President has continued a theme, and in some areas I’d argue he has done the right thing: in Afghanistan, for example, where he’s listened to advice and changed his policy.
I think in other areas, if you want to put it nicely, he’s been aspirational. And I think here of North Korea. If you’re gonna sup with the devil, use a long spoon. As for praising dictators, if you’re gonna do it, make sure there’s a definite outcome to it, because otherwise all you’re doing is whitewashing the brutality and murder that keeps them in place.
JG: And in Syria and Afghanistan, what do you want from the Americans on the ground and in leadership?
TT: On the ground I think the U.S. has done exactly the right thing. I think U.S. troop deployments in Syria have been appropriate, and tough, and clear. The problem comes when announcements are made that are not followed up, and worse, are made without consultation with allies. Foreign policy is not a game of surprise. If you want to have coordinated action then you need to make sure you bring your friends with you. You may want to surprise your enemies, but you sure as hell don’t want to surprise your friends. Otherwise you’ll rapidly find yourself acting alone because nobody will be quite sure what you’re going to do next.
JG: We have a pretty robust debate about how to characterize the challenge of Vladimir Putin. What does it look like from your perspective here in London? Is Russia a threat?
TT: Yes. But it’s a different kind of threat than what we’re used to. It’s a threat that is using a full spectrum of violence against us, not just the military. And because it’s so broad, it’s much harder to nail down. So if you look at things like corruption spreading from the Russian mafia to business interests in the City of London, if you look at the use of individuals to hide wealth and corrupt institutions in the West, those are threats. If you then look at the funding of political parties and seeking to influence and indeed to discredit those movements, that is a threat. If you look at the use of social media to amplify what used to be fringe movements and to make them appear greater, both at home in the UK and in parts of Europe, that is a threat. If you look at the way Russian operatives used chemical weapons in the UK, both in Salisbury and in London, when they murdered Litvinenko, that is a threat.
These are modern Russian threats. And you parcel that together with probing flights by Russian aircraft and Russian submarines at sea, and you see a hostile state actor. But I think Russia needs to be put into context. Let’s be honest, Russia is a failing petrochemical economy, which has become so corrupted as to not in a real sense be a functioning state anymore. Salisbury was a very good indicator of this. That was the work of the Keystone Cops. The GRU, a once feared intelligence unit, has been so stripped of money and resources and so corrupted by its top officials who’ve stolen millions from the agency for their own gain that they’ve turned those two hit men into the Laurel and Hardy of assassins. It’s a complete joke.
And the same is true of the FSB. These guys have gone from being equals to, and indeed better than, our own agencies to being effectively just fronts for organized crime, with all the loss in quality and credibility that goes with it. So I think you’ve got to be careful. The bear is real, but the bear is now rather mangy and flea-ridden, and we’ve got to face that. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have serious capabilities. Cyber is a very cheap capability, and if you’ve got the resources of the state and you can keep people focused on it, then funnily enough you can invest more in it. But Ethiopia has got a very good state-based cyber capability, so let’s not think that Russia’s special.
JG: Do you think that we underestimate the Russian threat, are we assessing it rightly?
TT: I think the problem is that we try to ignore them, because in so many circumstances Russia is today irrelevant. It’s not equal in any real sense to any western power; it’s just not. So we try to ignore them. The honest answer is we can’t quite ignore them, and so we are then constantly surprised by small things.
So when the pensions protests broke out in Moscow, for example, they were completely irrelevant to the UK. A pensions crisis in Germany would have very serious implications for the world economy because those are major global powers, economically speaking. A pensions crisis in Russia is irrelevant, so we don’t focus on it, but the quid pro quo is that like all failing dictatorships, and with aging dictators who have grown weaker as they get older, as the young men start to circle and look for opportunities, Putin then needs to react to his internal weakness, and so he exports violence. This is a perfectly traditional ploy by emperors and dictators throughout the ages, and it means that he then goes and invades Ukraine or Georgia.
JG: Would you say a word about Nord Stream 2?
TT: Look, Nord Stream 2 is not about energy, bluntly. Nord Stream 2 is a strategic attempt to undermine the integrity of NATO by reducing the interdependence of nations in eastern Europe. Now, from a Russian perspective that’s a very logical thing to do. From a German perspective I think it’s staggeringly unwise to seek to effectively remove your bumper from the body of the vehicle. It reduces your strategic depth, it reduces your defense in depth. I think it’s very unwise of Germany to have agreed it, and I think it’s fundamentally undermining their own security. Sadly Germany’s relationship with Russia has been very different over recent years to the one that we got used to and the connections between former incumbents of the chancellery and the Putin regime really do raise questions.
JG: And Angela Merkel, otherwise Putin-skeptical, has somehow gone along with Nord Stream 2. How do you judge that?
TT: I don’t know the internal German politics that have seen that happen. I’ve spoken to members of the Bundestag who are as skeptical about it as I am, but I don’t know the internal politics. It is noticeable that more countries are turning against it. France recently spoke out against it, with good reason. I think it’s very unwise. That doesn’t make it illegal, that doesn’t make it easy for us to stop, but I think it’s very unwise. And the first losers of it will be Germany.
JG: As you know, there’s a growing consensus in Washington that China is a problem on trade and security. What’s the mood here, what’s your view?
TT: China is very different from Russia. Russia is a failing state trying to pull down the system, because it’s got nothing to lose and it’s just struggling to hold on. In fact, except for the United Nations Security Council seat that it has, Russia has no real strategic leverage anymore. China’s very different. And we’ve got to remember that China has gone from being economically a very minor player in the 1950s through even the early 1990s, to being the largest, or the second-largest, depending on how you count, economy in the world.
So it’s not unreasonable that China, having seen the rules written in the period where it was economically less influential, is now seeking to change them now that it is one of the top two powers. That is a reasonable position for China to take. And that’s where we’ve got to look at China honestly and not in a binary sense. It’s neither hostile nor allied, it’s looking out for its own interests. What I mean is that if you look at things like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, it’s important to support China’s legitimate interest in regional economic development through infrastructure investment. I think that’s a reasonable thing to do. What’s not reasonable is to support some of the mercantile colonialism that we’re seeing in other parts of the region which are effectively based on debt diplomacy. I think that’s problematic.
So there’s a balance here, because you can ignore Russia most of the time, but you can’t ignore China. China is a very serious power, and it brings other problems. I know that the Trump Administration has been thinking about Huawei and ZTE [two Chinese multinational telecoms companies under scrutiny by the U.S. government – ed.]. These are very strongly state-affiliated companies, and so the relationship between them and our public infrastructure providers, particularly in telecoms, is something we’ve got to be cautious about.
JG: And you don’t see China as a threat in terms of cyber, the same way as Russia?
TT: It’s a threat, but not in the same way as Russia.
JG: What about undermining the international system? They’re not about the liberal order.
TT: Nope. That’s right.
JG: They’re about ad hoc coalitions.
TT: Well, one could say the President of the United States is too. Much in the same way that I was saying politics has gone from the corporate to the individual—from the compromise of the body, the party, to individual pressure—so has international politics gone from the international space to the national argument. In the so-called “age of the strongman,” it is the current illusion that this is the way forward. But you know, there are great weaknesses to strongman politics, you don’t need me to tell you. Infrastructures and institutions are much more stable than strongmen. And I say that as a monarchist! But that’s why I look at President Xi abolishing term limits in China, and don’t see that as a sign of strength but rather a sign of weakness.
So I think you’ve got to be careful when looking at China. You’re looking at a unitarian and dictatorial state, true, but you’re also looking at an internally fractured state where provincial power is very real, and the further away you go from Beijing, as in all empires, the less influence the capital actually has.
And on cyber, look, it’s no great surprise China is using cyber espionage to steal corporate secrets. That was, sadly, always going to happen. What’s more concerning is the way it’s playing with the WTO and undermining the international system that has made it rich. That is deeply unwise on its part. But is China a state actor like Russia seeking to pull the whole system down? No, China is trying to replace parts of it. That is a challenge.
JG: Let’s end on Iran. Are we on a good path now to defang Iran?
JG: So is conflict a possibility in the next couple of years?
TT: The tragedy of our relationship with Iran is that conflict has been a possibility for the last 40 years, and I think it’s a great credit to many different administrations that conflict has not arisen. It’s a difficult relationship, to put it nicely. Iran is beginning to realize that 40 years after the revolution people don’t remember the Shah. And so we’re seeing a very different Iran today than the one we were used to in the 80s and 90s. We’re seeing young people who do not understand, quite reasonably, why their quality of life should be diminished in order to fight unnecessary wars in Syria and Iraq, or why they should be hearing about brothers and cousins of theirs who died in conflicts in other parts of the Middle East.
And this is where, just as social media has challenged our political system, it challenges others too. A lot of people are learning a lot more about their own country these days, and the inability to control the media means that the realization of the wars that Iran’s government is fighting has become rather more prevalent.
The other thing, of course, is that Iran isn’t a single state. Iran is a very mixed country. From the mullahs to the government to the Revolutionary Guard, you’ve got different constituents, and those are only the ones in power, then you have all those that represent things like the Basij and the agricultural community and things like that. So you’ve got a very divided nation. I hope very much that we do come through this period because a powerful and free Iran is so much in the world’s interest. It’s an extraordinary culture and an extraordinary people, and having the country so cut off as it is today is a great punishment for the whole world, not just the Iranian people.
JG: What does it look like if the United States decides that a military action is warranted to diminish or impede the Iranian nuclear capability?
TT: I can’t see that in the moment. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t see it. It would be a very heavy responsibility.
JG: Anything else you want to tell us right now?
TT: I have to say, we talk a lot about outside actors, quite reasonably: Iran, China, Russia. We talk less about inside actors, countries like our very close allies. We mentioned the internal politics of the United States and the internal politics of the UK, but I mean really close friends who are not helping. And here, the United States needs to be unequivocally committed to NATO. Not just for our benefit, but for yours. The United Kingdom needs to be unequivocally committed to the security of Europe for the same reason. By the way, that’s why this government has been very clear on our commitment to NATO and our commitment to work with European powers on security and cooperation whatever the outcome of the EU talks.
But other issues that are arising are really problematic, and are much harder to deal with. So you look at the Gilets Jaunes movement in France, you look at the undermining of norms in Italian politics, or indeed the challenges that you see in certain eastern European countries where, frankly, democracy is not looking particularly solid. And you realize that it’s not just outsiders that challenge, it’s insiders too.
JG: From what you just said, one might get the feeling that the glue that held lots of things together internally and externally is beginning to dissolve. Do you have that feeling?
TT: There is a problem that arises after a while when people forget their past, and they forget that the devil exists. And just because you don’t believe in the devil does not mean he’s gone away. And just because you’ve forgotten what he looks like, does not mean he’s forgotten you.
And this is one of those things that those of us who’ve served in combat remember well: when you go into towns like Baghdad or Kabul, and you are in somebody’s abandoned house, in what was once a wealthy district, and you open a cupboard and there’s ballet shoes or French books or something like that, and you realize that middle-class communities lived here at some point in the last 20 years. They cared about their kids’ education and their daughter’s dancing lessons, but have now, for one reason or another, been forced to flee, or murdered.
Anyone who has fought in a war realizes that the veneer of civilization can be very thin, and that just because you don’t believe in the devil does not mean he’s gone away. And I think that today, there are too few of our leaders who’ve looked the devil in the face, and realize that when you’re playing with fire you can never control the flames.